INTERVIEW: Lee Montgomery, editor, Tin House Books

I adore indie publisher Tin House Books for its committment to finding unboxed writers and publishing authors whose work fits outside the mainstream.  So I was delighted to be given the opportunity to interview Tin House’s editor Lee Montgomery.  Montgomery was one of two editors who selected essays for Tin House’s The Writer’s Notebook, a collection of essays on the craft of writing fiction by an ecletic group of Tin House authors. I found each of the essays in The Writer’s Notebook inspiring and often laugh-out-loud funny.  After reading the essays I found myself inspired to push outside my comfort zone, and as a writer that push is essential for growth.

Please enjoy our interview with Tin House editor Lee Montgomery.

Q: What was the genesis behind THE WRITER’S NOTEBOOK?

Lee Montgomery: The seminars at our summer workshop were so terrific –instructive and inspiring– we wanted a way to share them with the world. We’re techno challenged and a bit old fashioned so we felt the best way for the most people to benefit was to make a book. That way people can dip in and out, rereading the essays over and over, which is what we like to do.

Q: With so many great authors who are guests at your annual craft seminars how did you decide which essays to include in the book?

LM: There were a lot of factors that went into deciding what to include. From a practical standpoint, there were some lectures that did not translate well from lecture into essay form. There was also this question of permissions. Many writers used other texts in their talks. In some instances, lectures analyzed whole stories. The cost of reprinting these was prohibitive. Finally, we needed a certain balance of topics; from philosophy, construction, to revision.

Q: Why did you decide to include a CD with the book?

LM: The CD is an attempt to be au courant and techno savvy, but bottom line is we’ve hosted some excellent panels that are also very instructive and the only way to present panels is in their original format. We thought having Denis Johnson, Dorothy Allison, Ron Carlson talk about character and nonfiction writers like Sallie Tisdale, Chris Offut, Tony Swofford, Charlie D’Ambrosio Scott Anderson, and others discuss the fine line between fiction and real life both too great to pass up.

Q: All the essays are terrific, and I know it would be difficult to select your favorite, but I’m going to ask you to anyway. You could decline to reveal it (or several essays), but I’m curious.

LM: They all are great but I do have favorites. Jim Krusoe’s Le Mot Incorrect is wonderful because he is taking Gustave Flaubert’s rather famous well-traveled philosophy of le mot juste and turning it upside down and twisting it around backwards. It is brilliant in the way Jim’s work is — surprising, hilarious, and down to earth. This man is a wonderful writer and teacher, a true original, full of interesting adventures in narrative and form.

Peter Rock’s lecture refuting common perceptions about exposition is also very good for the same reason – taking popular advice about writing and boldly contradicting it.

Steve Almond and Dorothy Allison are fabulous because not only are they smart smart about writing they are such great characters themselves—fearlessly honest and intense in their presentations. I hear their booming voices when I read their essays (and laugh because they are too funny).

And finally, I have to say Chris Offut’s essay on revision and Anna Keesey’s essay on scene were most helpful to me personally.

Q: What’s the one thing that you wish writers would do more (or less) of?

LM: More show less tell.

Q: Tin House has a reputation for discovering great literary voices that are truly unboxed. What grabs your attention in a manuscript?

LM: Authenticity, urgency, and voice, what Frank Conroy, the past director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, described as the sense of a soul pressing up against the prose.

Q: Are there any upcoming titles that you wish to share with our readers to be on the lookout for?

LM: We have such an excellent line up of fiction for fall and spring but Story About the Story (out in October) is the best anthology about writing EVER.

Okay, add another great craft book to my list.

The Writer’s Notebook is available NOW. Do not miss this great addition to your craft shelf.


About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber.